North Korea confirms 21 new deaths in battle against COVID-19

North Korea reported 21 new deaths on Saturday and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country rushes to slow down the spread of COVID-19 on the unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which were as of Friday, rose to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses since late April amid a rapid spread of fever. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 people were in quarantine. State media did not specify how many of the fevers and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed nationwide lockdowns on Thursday after confirming the first COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. It previously held on for more than two years to a widely questioned claim of perfect recording of the virus that has spread to almost every place in the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historic “massive disruption” at a meeting on anti-virus strategies on Saturday and called for unity between the government and the population to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying that most transmissions take place within communities that are isolated from each other and do not spread from region to region. The country has imposed stricter preventive measures since Thursday to limit the movement of people and supplies between cities and provinces, but state media descriptions of the steps indicate that people will not be confined to their homes.

Experts say failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor health care system and the fact that the 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with a fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. The country has so far officially confirmed that one death is linked to an ommicron infection.

Virus outbreak Japan North Korea
A passer-by walks past a screen showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wearing a face mask on a TV news program in Tokyo, Friday, May 13, 2022.

Shuji Kajiyama / AP

Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other key health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will be mostly about isolating people with symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

North Korea does not have the technological and other means to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has closed entire cities and locked residents to their homes, nor can it afford to do so at the risk of a fragile economy. even more shocking, North Korea said. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

While calling for stricter preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim has also stressed the need to meet the country’s economic goals, which likely means large groups will continue to gather on agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

It is unusual for isolated North Korea to admit an outbreak of a contagious disease, let alone one as menacing as COVID-19, as it is intensely proud and sensitive to outside perceptions of its self-proclaimed ‘socialist utopia’ . But experts are divided on whether the announcement of the outbreak in the north indicates they are willing to receive outside help.

The country had shunned millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of concerns about international monitoring requirements associated with those injections.

North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian suffering than most other countries, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain number of fatalities to gain immunity through infection, rather than vaccines and other outside help.

South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea on humanitarian grounds, but officials in Seoul say the north has not yet received any. made a request for assistance.

The viral spread could have been accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where Kim took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program.

After two years of enforcing one of the world’s strictest border closures to protect its poor health care system, North Korea reopened rail freight with China in February, apparently to ease pressure on its economy. But China last month confirmed the route’s closure in the fight against COVID-19 outbreaks in the border areas.

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